The maneuver amounts to a remarkable display of bipartisan pushback to Trump's foreign policy and threatens to tangle the Senate in a series of floor votes this summer. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is leading the effort, but he has support from two of Trump's allies in Congress: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Anger has been mounting in Congress over the Trump administration's close ties to the Saudis, fueled by the high civilian casualties in the Saudi-led war in Yemen — a military campaign the U.S. is assisting — and the killing of U.S.-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. Trump's decision in May to sell the weapons, in a manner intended to bypass congressional review, further inflamed the tensions.
"While I understand that Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of Mohammed bin Salman cannot be ignored. Now is not the time to do business as usual with Saudi Arabia," Graham said in a statement Wednesday. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that an operation like the killing of Khashoggi could not have happened without the knowledge of the powerful crown prince.
Adding to the outcry, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia revealed this week that the Trump administration continued to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia even after Khashoggi's murder. Kaine said that information, which he received from the Department of Energy, added "to a disturbing pattern of behavior" by the administration.
Menendez's introduction of the 22 resolutions Wednesday creates a challenge for Senate leadership, as he is using a procedure that can force action on the Senate floor. Other supporters of the effort include Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a longtime critic of the war in Yemen, Republican Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, and Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
The Trump administration in May invoked an emergency provision in the Arms Export Control Act to push through $8 billion worth of arms sales to the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the sales were necessary to counter "the malign influence of the government of Iran throughout the Middle East region."
Some of the weapons could be delivered later this year, while other arms will not ship for another year or longer. The sale included precision guided munitions, other bombs and ammunition and aircraft maintenance support.
"We are in an unprecedented situation," Menendez said, adding that the 22 resolutions had the potential to "close the Senate for some period of time" due to the debate time that would be allotted to each resolution. Menendez said he is asking the administration to rescind the emergency declaration so the arms sales can be considered by Congress.
"The question before the Senate is do you want to be a separate co-equal branch of government, or do you want to give this and future administrations a carte blanche," he said. Congress has never before tried to block a sale pushed through by the White House with an emergency declaration and it's unclear if the resolutions introduced Wednesday will be successful, according to a Senate aide. Senate leadership and the parliamentarian may ultimately need to rule on whether it can proceed. The aide was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
It also remains to be seen if the resolutions can gain enough support to overcome a likely presidential veto. Lawmakers blocked about $2 billion in arms sales to the kingdom for more than a year, citing concerns over human rights. Separately, Congress passed legislation this year that would have ended U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Trump vetoed the measure.
Speaking from the Senate floor Wednesday, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York threw his support behind the resolutions to block the arms sales. "Over the past year, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, despite some positive domestic reforms, has too often acted like a brute in the Middle East rather than a stabilizing force," Schumer said. He said Congress should take a stand against Trump's Saudi policy and push back against executive overreach.
"In America, we have a three-branch government, not a one-branch government. Maybe some of our Republican colleagues are recognizing that and beginning to act," he said.